What’s under State Street? Curious Coast finds out

In Catholic countries, when tunnel-builders embark on a project, they will create a shrine to Saint Barbara, the third century saint who was beheaded by her father. Placed at the opening to the tunnel, the shrine is there to provide protection against sudden and violent death at work.

So, it’s appropriate that our latest Curious Coast question sent us below State Street in search of answers.

Here’s the question from record store employee Jason Stoops: “Was there really an underground jazz club and other shops beneath State Street?”

Jason Stoops has heard plenty of rumors about underground State Street. Now, he wants to separate fact from fiction. (Ted Mills/KCRW)

The short answer is yes, but before we get to the jazz, a little digging is in order.

When we originally posted this question we were inundated with stories of underground tunnels, speakeasies, bomb shelters, military think tanks and more.

Many were convinced that there was once was–or still is–a vast series of tunnels running all the way from State Street to the beach used for rum running. Others swore there was a tunnel under State Street connecting the Arlington and Granada theaters. Or a secret passage between what is now Forever 21 and Marshall’s.

Trouble was, no one had actually been underground. It was always a friend, or a sibling, or a relative who had heard about or seen these tunnels.

According to historian Neal Graffy, the closest Santa Barbara ever got to a series of tunnels was back in the days before the 1925 earthquake. Under old Chinatown, once located on the first block of east Canon Perdido Street, police would often raid the tunnels, referring to them as warrens.

“There were all sort of illicit things going on,” said Graffy. “And (the police) knew. It was all a game. They would go and raid the place and the people would disappear into the tunnels. They would go down sometimes and explore and find opium and card dealing. But it was just a part of Santa Barbara life. It wasn’t a big deal. They did it every once in awhile just to look like, ‘we’re working on this, we’re checking it out’.”

But that all changed with the 1925 earthquake that leveled much of the town. When it was rebuilt, the Chinatown tunnels were razed.

Since then businesses have been built and rebuilt up and down State Street. Some have basements. Some don’t. But figuring out the history of the underground tunnels and spaces was challenging. “None of the old timers I’ve talked to have ever mentioned the ‘good old days’ of underground speakeasies, gambling rooms, etc,” said Graffy

There aren’t any records of underground tunnels or speakeasies, either. A search at the Historical Museum came up empty, as did a visit to the City of Santa Barbara. Although city workers spend time maintaining sewage pipes and storm drains, no one was hanging out down there.

Yet there are clearly rumors. Many point to the the El Paseo restaurant, which dates from 1922 but some of the surrounding spaces on the block are as old as 1826.

John Woodward, former manager of the El Paseo space during the 1970s, a mostly retired lawyer and a Santa Barbara history buff, knew a lot about the tunnels. In fact, he’s the only person who actually has a map of them. He made it himself.

“As far as I know, nobody had done a floor plan, a detailed floor plan of the property,” Woodward said. “So in 1976 I drew this one. I was attempting to show every single space: Every doorway, every closet, and how it was configured at that time. It’s pretty much the same today, there’s not much difference.

“I always knew drafting and I had a drafting board, so I brought it down to my office and did a lot of it at night when the tenants weren’t there so I could run out and take measurements of things I didn’t have.”

The map he made is the only complete view of both the above and below ground spaces of the El Paseo. It looks like a Dungeons & Dragons map. But it does show that none of the corridors leading off from the basements go across State. Why were the corridors there? Furnaces.

As Neal Graffy explained about another building, the San Marcos Building on the 1100 block of State, furnaces were a common basement item.

“The engineer would come down there at 5:30 or 6 o’clock in the morning, so by the time all the occupants of the offices came in around 8 o’clock and 9 it would be nice and warm.”

The mysterious Basement B. Is this the long corridor that started the tunnel rumors?

On Woodward’s map, “Basement B,” looked like a place where rumors could start: A long corridor heads down towards State before hanging left into a dead end. Imagine being down in the basement all alone and seeing a long corridor stretching into the darkness and then turning a corner towards the ocean. Would you go down there? Or would you just think it goes all the way down to the Cabrillo and tell your friends?

A bartender at El Paseo let me have a look at Basement B. But the long corridor was blocked by a door. A dead end.

However, there are plenty of underground spaces along State Street. Some of them are actual stores, official businesses anyone can access.

One of those is Salt, the salt cave space under State near the corner of De La Guerra. There, I met Chava Logan, who runs marketing for the company.

“We have a speakeasy in the back,” she said. “Do you want to see it?”

Chava Logan of Salt waits at the entrance to the disused space she and her fellow workers call the “speakeasy.”

Logan handed me a flashlight and said I was welcome to explore. At the back of the store, beyond where customers can go, is a small hatch at chest height.

I crawled through on my knees and found myself in a large room filled with rubble and covered in plastic sheeting. It wasn’t as creepy as it sounds, just still and quiet, save for the retail footsteps above. At some places the rubble was so high I was grazing the ceiling, but elsewhere the space was large; three rooms connected by brick arches.

Was this really a speakeasy? Was this Santa Barbara’s version of Al Capone’s vault? No skeletons, and no dusty tommy guns.

Still, Logan said she likes to imagine it filled with revelers.

“Because of all those different rooms, my mind was starting to imagine the past and how neat it would have been in that era, she said. “I guess (State Street) was the original party street back in the day, too!”

And isn’t it better to dream of a speakeasy filled with scofflaws and flappers rather than a storage basement used for dry goods?

“Back east, we have basements everywhere,” said Graffy about the hold these spaces have on Santa Barbara’s imagination. “Try to find a house in Santa Barbara with a basement. There’s very few that have it. So kids get jobs that have businesses along State Street. They find there’s a downstairs. It’s dark. It’s spooky. It’s fun. And so the legends come up.”

But, he added, “there’s a truth behind every legend.”

And we were about to find that out. Our investigation was just beginning.

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Curious Coast is a project made possible by the supporters of KCRW and a grant from Antioch University Santa Barbara.